BOSTON — Labor leaders are urging lawmakers to extend collective-bargaining rights to drivers for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services to improve their pay and benefits.

A proposal heard Tuesday by the Legislature’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development would require so-called transportation network companies to allow drivers to organize and push for higher wages, health benefits, anti-discrimination policies and other workplace protections.

Steve Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said ride hailing workers deserve the same collective-bargaining rights as other transportation workers.

“These workers are being exploited by multi-million-dollar tech companies,” Tolman told the committee. “They are paid less than the minimum wage, generally receive no benefits, and are being excluded from legal protections against injury, harassment and discrimination that are guaranteed by our state laws.”

Mike Vartabedian, a Massachusetts AFL-CIO official and spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 264, said driving for Uber and other companies isn’t just a moonlighting job for many workers.

“It’s not a side-hustle,” Vartabedian told the panel. “It’s their full-time, primary source of income that their family relies on to keep a roof over their heads, and it’s time our state laws caught up with the realities of this new industry.”

Another proposal before lawmakers would require ride-hailing companies to pay drivers at least 80% of the cost of a fare, in order to boost their wages.

Massachusetts is shaping up as the latest battleground over the issue of whether drivers for ride-hailing services should be treated as regular employees.

A referendum inching toward the 2022 ballot would ask voters to update the state’s labor laws by classifying drivers for services such as Uber and Lyft as contractors. The proposal mirrors one adopted by California voters last year, which keeps drivers classified as independent contractors able to set their own hours.

Supporters include the California-based ride hailing services, as well as the food delivery service DoorDash. They say classifying drivers as contractors will allow them to boost drivers’ pay and provide a health care stipend.

However, it also means drivers won’t get the benefits and protections of regular employees, which include minimum wage, overtime and health insurance benefits.

Ride-hailing and delivery services spent more than $200 million to sway California voters, making it the most expensive referendum in that state’s history.

In July, Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit seeking recognition of Uber and Lyft drivers in Massachusetts as employees under the state’s wage and hour laws. The designation would require the services to pay minimum wage and overtime, and give earned sick leave.

Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies contend their drivers prefer the flexibility of working as contractors, with more control over their schedules than they would have otherwise.

Designating them as employees, the companies say, could threaten jobs at a time of high unemployment due to the pandemic.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

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